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'Airfix made me the man I am'

By Peter Caddick-Adams
Military historian

Airfix
Airfix has gone into administration, prompting an outpouring of nostalgia for the kit models. For many, memories of assembling models of Spitfires and Lancaster bombers epitomise a lost childhood.

News of the shadow over Airfix's future will be greeted with an audible groan by millions who grew up in the 1960s and 70s and spent their weekly pocket money on plastic model kits and polystyrene cement every Saturday morning.

The artwork on the boxes enticed us to glue, assemble and paint anything from Spitfires, Saturn Five rockets, soldiers and sailing ships, to railway rolling stock, armoured vehicles, classic cars and even dinosaurs; the range was vast.

Then came the mock battles across the bedroom floor with painted tanks, planes and infantry; aircraft hung from the ceiling, suspended by cotton thread. Occasionally you pushed a Stuka dive-bomber out of the window that you had set alight, but it never quite exploded as in the films.

Airfix kit of Bristol Bulldog
Doing brisk business on eBay
Eventually you moved on, and the kits (made and unmade), paints and polystyrene cement were consigned to a box in the attic with the Matchbox trucks and Action Man. The days of scrubbing away the accidentally-painted fingertips and glue spilt on clothing were over.

If they were to admit it, there is a whole generation that owes much to Airfix and their fellow manufacturers of plastic model kits.

Although Airfix were the market leaders (their first kit was a Spitfire, launched in 1955), they became a sort of generic name for any plastic, injection-moulded model kit - usually of some kind of military machine. There were other brands, which included Revell and FROG, which started in the 1930s and stood for Flies Right Off the Ground. Airfix was as popular in the United States, France and Germany (where the swastika transfers on Heinkels and Messerschmitts were banned).

The Battle of Britain still continues between aircraft types. Frances Gatwin, head of retail at the RAF Museum in Hendon, which sells many thousands of aeroplane kits every year, says Airfix Spitfires outsell all other aircraft in the museum shop "by ten to one".

History channelled

But "war" meant nothing sinister to a 10-year old in the 60s, despite what your father (who had fought in World War II) and grandfather (who'd served in 1914-18) said.

AIRFIX FAN JOSEPH HAMM, 8
Airfix fan Joseph Hamm, who is eight
'I like WWII planes and wanted to make them. My granddad took me to the model shop, but we decided a car would be better to start with. So we bought an Airfix Lotus Elan two years ago. It took me a year to make!'
'When you've got nothing to do they're good fun to make. When it's raining you can't go to the park and play cricket. And you've got the joy of having made something that took a long time.'
'It's got me interested in history. I've been to the Imperial War museum and to Duxford.'
'There's a model-making club at school and about 12 of my friends make models too.'
Old black-and-white photographs of tanks, planes and ships rarely captured combat action, whereas the colour artwork on the Airfix box always depicted them in the act of dog-fighting or opening fire. Dramatic stuff - smell that whiff of cordite.

This artwork and the kits triggered many a career in the military, writing, history, media or design. Personally, I learned about the Napoleonic wars, the Battle of Britain and moon rockets from the kits I made, not the books I read or the (then) very limited selection of daytime television shows.

Airfix unwittingly misled, too. It was only years later that I learned the uniforms of soldiers on campaign soon wore out, became soiled and that 19th Century battles were fought by rag-tag armies in a mixture of torn and shoddy clothing - not the immaculate ranks of red or blue the boxes suggested.

I believed that all troops were led into battle by officers wearing shirts, ties, peaked caps and waving a menacing revolver - as on the box of Airfix WWI British Infantry - but this truth died even before the Battle of the Somme in 1916. These myths endure, and arguably, Airfix helped shape the perceptions of warfare for a whole generation.

Stickler for detail

This all sounds a very violent, male-dominated world, on the verge of Anorakdom, but for all that, Airfix kits were absorbing, educational as you learnt what each fiddly bit actually did in real life, and taught important skills ranging from reading detailed assembly instructions (useful later in life for flat-pack furniture), painting and craftwork, to patience (also handy for flat-packs).

Still from Mrs Merton and Malcolm
For some, the hobby never fades
Using the completed kits in subsequent war games and dramas taught youngsters to develop their imagination and understand tolerance and restraint when confronting an opponent, in a way Monopoly never could.

Eddy Fawdry, of Pollock's Toy Museum in London, is not surprised that Airfix has suffered. "[Traditional toys] take longer to make and play with, whereas modern children's toys tended to be instant."

As a parent myself it occurred to me that toy weapons and aggressive games might trigger violent trends later in life. But according to the UK's National Toy Council, there is no evidence linking aggressive toys to children's attitudes towards war or violence. The council reassuringly observes that it's normal too - in the UK, USA, Germany, Italy and Holland, up to three-quarters of all boys and a third of girls play with aggressive toys at home.

War games

So what's happened to the kit-makers? Despite moving with the times to include Star Wars spaceships, Airfix's problem is that a new generation of children have instead turned their attention to computer games.

Model plane in shop
Parents enjoy playing with the kits with their children as it brings back memories from their own childhood - retro-toys can help in promoting parent-children relationships
Daniel Himsworth
Ironically, they're enticed to interact with the same tanks, ships and aircraft familiar to the kit-assembling generation, but in a new form of distorted reality - and where fewer practical life skills are taught.

Woolworth's, who still stock Airfix, are sorry to hear the company has gone into administration but remain convinced that there is a market for creative play toys like the plastic kits.

"Kids still love them and often parents enjoy playing with the kits with their children as it brings back memories from their own childhood. Retro-toys such as Airfix can help in promoting parent-children relationships in this way," says spokesman Daniel Himsworth.

For speciality shops like the Swindon Model Centre, it's "really terrible news". But a spokesman adds that Airfix has been losing ground to computer games for about seven years (the company has also stopped introducing new kits and is just repackaging old ones). Airfix prices have also risen sharply in recent years.

But this has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of those grown-up youngsters from the 60s and 70s who now compete for Airfix kits in online auctions. Perhaps the original purchasers stayed loyal as they grew older, and Airfix simply failed to engage the following generation.

But this is a sad recognition that the two-shilling kits have moved from being toys to becoming collectors' items, with the accompanying status of a valuable antique. Airfix itself has become a piece of history.


Below is a selection of your comments.

It's all down to the quality of the product and how it's marketed. Tamiya Japan is still going strong, hosting radio control car championships, etc. That's a country where video game is also part of many people's lifes, so that's not an excuse for Airfix.
C Lamb, Glasgow

I believe that building those Airfix models as a child not only was fun, but extremely educational. Children learned many life skills, patience, the ability to follow instructions, hand/eye coordination and sense of pride with their finished product without even realising. All good grounding for later in life - and all for a few pounds. Well worth the money.
Flewit, Ilkeston UK

I have so good memories from both Airfix and Revell. As a teenager I assembled both WWII planes as well as WWII warships. For me it was also educational as I had to learn English to understand the instructions as well as the history of the planes or ships.
Henrik Sundell-Honkanummi, Espoo, Finland

Airfix definitely has made who I am today. After building whole squadrons of spitfires, Mosquitos and Messerschmidts (and learning patience and logical procedure in the process), I progressed onto Warhammer fantasy war gaming and so still spend hours gluing and painting plastic models. And this is a hobby that doesn't seem to be losing out in the modern world.
Jane, Strood, Kent

Airfix made me the man I am? Probably. Aircraft (obviously), but ships, tanks and all sorts of other machines but history too and reading (Monster Fun and Buster comics with their Airfix Modeller club pages). I recall I had a Hawker Hurricane (1:20) where I had to build the engine. I'm a mechanical engineer now - no doubt Airfix started me off
Henry Hooper, Lochwinnoch

Not only were the models an endless source of fun but the kits contained a detailed history of each subject. Most of my early knowledge of the two world wars was provided by Airfix. My 21-year-old son marvels at the fact I can recognise virtually every aeroplane, tank and warship from both world wars even though I was born 11 years after it finished.
Rod, Nuneaton

There's something singularly appropriate in the fact that one of there most popular kits recently - and one of the few new ones for years - was the TSR2. Unfortunately you need to be a bit of an aeroplane buff to get it...
Jason, Herts, UK

Airfix was not only aeroplanes and soldiers, I remember many hours spent painting "jewels and velvet" as I made King Henry VIII and other historical characters.
Emma Wynn, Bristol, US

The saving up of the pocket money followed by the selection and purchase in town on a Saturday morning. The rest of the day spent building and painting it, trying to decipher the 1960s written instructions ("locate and cement the starboard bulkhead flange" etc), trying in vain to keep the cement off the cockpit cover, forgetting to paint the pilot first, the inevitable bits you always left out in your haste to see it completed, struggling to get clean lines on the camouflage pattern, fiddling around with those blessed transfers, hanging it from your bedroom ceiling on nylon thread, then (eventually) destroying it in some horrible fashion when it was time for a clear-out. Ah, the simple pleasures...
Dave, Chester

This reminds me of one of the funniest moments on TV - Adrian Mole sitting in an A&E waiting room with an Airfix Spitfire stuck to his nose after his experiment with glue sniffing.
PS, Birmingham, UK

I remember making a figure of Henry VIII from an Airfix kit when I was 10. I think I still have some of the gold paint under my fingernails. My brother used to do the military models. My neighbour's nine-year-old has just started a model of the Cutty Sark after I started him on models last Christmas. I expect the sales of Airfix to rise after this news. I'm certainly going hunting at the weekend.
Susan Wakefield, Petersfield

I grew up with Airfix (and yes I still have many of my models in the attic). My eldest son (aged 9) is now also starting to enjoy making and painting Airfix models. All my three sons are also Lego fans, but I fear they are in a minority as all their friends lack the patience to follow instructions.
Tim Harvey, Leeds

I am afraid its a sign of the times. Today's kids (certainly mine) want instant gratification from toys. On the bright side this does mean I get to play with my Meccano set in peace and the bits don't get pinched for alternative projects. It is very sad to see yet another British market leader go to the wall and my sympathies are with the people who will lose their jobs.
Bernie, Harrogate

I remember being under 10 and receiving a kit at both birthdays and Christmas - it was the only way for my parents to ensure that I didn't moan about being bored on Boxing day. I'll miss them although I haven't actually touched one in years. But DAMMIT, those transfers!
Giff, Swindon

Time to get out the model of the Battle of Britain Lancaster which I started a few months ago and haven't finished...
Martin, Bedfordshire

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